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You paid for it: A Beyond the Books investigation into a cooking show that cost $1 million

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"Teen Chef Pro is a taxpayer-funded reality TV program produced by Reel People Productions. (Photo: KUTV)

(KUTV) — By all measures, "Teen Chef Pro" is a well-done show.

Braxton Gray, who was on the show two years in a row, was impressed with the cameras, sets and producers.

“It was remarkable,” Gray said, “I was really surprised when I walked onto the set the first season I was on there.”

Gray has reason to be impressed. Each season of show costs at least $250,000 to produce, and put down your knife and fork for a moment, because guess what? You picked up the tab.

The program is run by the Utah Restaurant Association. It is one of two programs the agency runs for state education. The other includes the Pro Start program, a culinary arts program available in dozens of Utah high schools that teaches students how to succeed in the restaurant industry.

Funding for the "Teen Chef Pro" show has been an issue for state lawmakers for some time. Governor Gary Herbert actually struck the budget item from the state's 2016 budget but other lawmakers decided, at the 11th hour, to put it back in.

2News asked the governor about the show at his monthly press conference.

“I thought putting the money into more education in the classroom and training people to be chefs was better than funding a reality TV show,” Herbert said.

State Rep. Joel Briscoe (D-Salt Lake City) has been stewing about the show for years and suggested the payoff is not worth the cost.

“I think it’s ill-considered; I don’t think it’s a wise use of taxpayer funds,” Briscoe said.

With these considerations in mind, the Beyond the Books investigative unit — which looks into issues affecting education in Utah — decided to look at the numbers. We requested, as per state law, all financial records surrounding the show. What we found was a show that seems, at least according to the documents we received, not to have much oversight.

For example, in 2017, there was only one invoice included. It was for $83,000 and the description line said the money was simply for editing, photography, etc.

An invoice submitted by the company that produces the show, Reel People Productions, said it paid the director of photography on the show more than $18,000. But the Beyond the Books unit spoke to him on the phone and he said during his three years working on the show, he never made more than $7,800.

2News was also interested in who the Utah Restaurant Association hired to produce the show. This is the exchange Beyond the Books investigator Chris Jones had with Melva Sine, the president of the URA:

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Chris Jones: "Who owns the production company? That produces the show?"

Melva Sine: "So, that isn’t a part of this conversation in terms of the economic value."

CJ: "I’d like to address it, if we could. Who owns the production company?"

MS: "Who owns the production company?"

CJ: "That produces the show?"

MS: "Uh, the production company is owned by Reel People Productions."

CJ: "And who’s the principal of that organization?"

MS: "Katy Sine, is the person."

CJ: "And she’s your daughter."

MS: "Yes, she is — she is my daughter."

CJ: "So you can see how lawmakers, and maybe the taxpayers, might have problems with what looks like potential nepotism."

MS: "I know that she’s a professional. She’s received her training. She received no pay to do the show, to act as the producer."

Rep. Briscoe said the connection is concerning.

“You know we have nepotism laws on purpose because it’s human nature to want to help out people you’re related to,” he said.

However, Briscoe said he is more concerned about how that $250,000 could be spent on more teachers, more teacher training and more benefits for students.

“Even in Utah, a quarter of a million dollars is real money — it may not be in D.C., but we could do a lot with $250,000,” Briscoe said.

Beyond the Books reached out to Katy Sine and provided her with documents and a list of questions. She said she would get back to us in three weeks.